Thursday, October 10, 2013


[A video game] tells the tale of [a video game protagonist] who is born with a special gift, a supernatural entity named [a character] that protects our heroine under any and all circumstances. The game takes the player through fifteen years of [a video game protagonist's] life as she tries to discover the truth behind this mystical being. Instead of following a chronological order of events, the game jumbles the story to and fro across different stages in [the protagonist's].

It's a neat idea, but executed with all the grace of a bulldozer. The script is terrible, with robotic dialogue and heavy-handed moralising.

Thinking even a little about the story will make it clear how absurd the narrative is. The end-game disaster is, like most other things in the game, so obviously going to happen. But why doesn't [a video game protagonist] acknowledge that ever? Why does one character decide to so suddenly go insane? Is [video game developer] familiar with the terms "character development" and "foreshadowing?"

As the game went on we began to realise that, particularly with the episodic nature of the storytelling, what it reminded us of was not a movie but a pop-up book. You can play with the small number of interactive elements all you like but the meat of the story is still predetermined and relatively inconsequential compared to the visual novelty of the experience.

[Y]ou're oftentimes just guiding [a video game protagonist] to the end of a 'scene' – by, say, opening doors, or rolling over in your bed – rather than making informed, influential choices.

[T]he only frustration I had was having so little freedom to experiment when playing as [a character]. The spirit can only possess specific people or items, and they are almost always required to move the story forward. I craved more flexibility here, a sense that I was driving the experience rather than watching from the back seat.

It's more about role-playing [a video game protagonist] and [a character], whom you also get to control in a woozy first-person mode where you float around doing poltergeist stuff: possessing soldiers, channelling memories, messing with radios, petulantly flinging paperweights at the wall. Will [a video game protagonist] be direct or evasive? Will [a character] be vengeful or respectful? You modify the tone, but accept that the story is going wherever it's going.

You know [a video game protagonist] cannot die, and you know that your decisions won't have any meaningful impact on the story--because you're already aware of what will happen in the future. Simply telling the story in chronological order would not only make the story flow better, but it would be more effective at giving the illusion of player agency.

[A video game protagonist's] predicaments are always the same: she's backed into a corner - by malevolent spirits, teenage bullies, and stereotypical rednecks trying to sexually assault her - and [a character] rushes in at the last moment to save her. But, annoyingly, he can only kill or possess people when it suits the story, which shatters the illusion that you're in control ... You don't feel like you're having any real impact on where the story is heading either, like you're a spectator rather than a participant.

Theoretically, I could see being able to control [a character] being a heady power trip for the player, who would have to learn how to use his powers creatively to aid [a video game protagonist] in solving some wide-open puzzles and direct how the story unfolds. Instead, [a character's] powers are forced into strictly proscribed situations that feel like they're just there to fill story holes. The game practically tells you outright specifically what to do with [a character] and when to do it, sometimes even switching the player from [the protagonist's] perspective to his ghostly point of view automatically. At these points, you have to float around until you find one of the pieces of the environment highlighted with a blue dot (or a person with a distinct orange aura) and interact with them however the game tells you to. There's no creativity or even basic puzzle-solving skill needed to complete the vast majority these tasks; it's just a bit of find-the-dot interactive busywork before you can get on to the next cut scene.

What’s particularly patronising is that it often doesn’t matter what you do during an extended interactive sequence. As an experiment we just put the controller down and didn’t do anything through two of the major fight scenes and we won anyway, just in less glorious fashion.

Player influence is also at a minimum. Failing an action mostly allows you to carry on – in the few places it doesn’t, repeating a section, such as a fight during a montage, is both boring and frustrating.

In one dramatic moment, I intentionally failed the (almost laughably easy) timed button-press tasks the game threw at me, only to trigger a cut scene where [the protagonist] is somehow saved and her original objective is achieved off-screen by military explosives. In another instance where I was steering a motorcycle, I stopped steering with the analog stick and simply held down the accelerator, only to find that the game piloted me safely to the end of the "dramatic" chase anyway. I can think of no better metaphor for the barely interactive nature of [video game] storytelling and gameplay than that.

This constant push and pull between our sense that we are impacting the story and the story itself has always been at the heart of everything [video games have] created, but it’s examples like these that highlight just how passive [a video game] made me feel. There are, of course, choices: on [development studio's] whim, you can choose how [a video game protagonist] responds in conversation, whether she’ll dance at a party or not, or take revenge on someone who has wronged her. But unlike the critical decisions you make in [lol], [a video game's] choices feel small, and the story will storm onward no matter how they are played out, never pausing to toss you a crunchy moral quandary to change its direction in any way that feels significant. It’s disappointingly unadaptable.

[A video game], developed for [a video game console], is rated M (Mature, for players 17 and older). It has cop killing, drug use and lots of swearing.

Note: Each paragraph of this post quotes from a review of Beyond: Two Souls, with embedded links to the source.